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Jan Vermeer


The Milkmaid
Jan Vermeer (Vur-mear) was born in the small Dutch town of Delft in 1632. There he stayed his whole life, making a living as an independent art dealer and painter. He died in 1675 at the age of 43.

Vermeer painted ordinary things like his own home, his children and neighbors. He seems not driven to find meaning in anything more complex. Rather, he expressed a wealth of meaning in a pitcher, in an oriental rug, or in a yellow piece of fabric. Like his Dutch contemporaries, he painted mostly middle-class people engaged in totally commonplace actions. Yet his paintings are "reflective of the values of a comfortable domesticity that has a simple beauty" (Kleiner, p. 862).

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In the 17th century, capitalism in the Netherlands worked its way into the art world. This freed artists like Vermeer from the influence of wealthy patrons like the church or the monarchy. As a result, Vermeer was more concerned with how things actually look than with any philosophical or religious agenda in his work. Dutch painters like him became interested in the way light works and in the physical act of seeing. This was part of a revolutionary scientific view of the world which was increasingly being extended into all fields of experience. Vermeer and his peers were faithful to appearance, not to theories or religion. "A thousand years and more of religious iconography are dismissed by a European people who ask for a vision of the world from which angels, saints and deities have been banished" (Kleiner, p. 854).

With this newfound freedom, Vermeer pushed the limits of art. His rendering of color, and the way colors interact in his paintings indicate that he understood color science far ahead of his time. Vermeer used the camera obscura, a primitive optical tool invented during his lifetime, to study the way light and color behave. The camera obscura is a setup of lenses and mirrors that project a vague image of a scene on a wall. He also recognized and painted an optical phenomenon modern photographers call "circles of confusion." These are vague dabs of paint that look blurred up close, but at a distance as the eye adjusts, and the effect is an astonishing three-dimensional illusion. Vermeer had painting down to a science.

Though capitalism lent artists more freedom from the traditional patrons, it forced them to cater their art to the buyer, for now they had to sell their paintings in order to survive. Vermeer traded some of his paintings for food and basic supplies. Being the father of 11 children further added to his financial burden. He could not even afford the fee required to join the Delft painters' guild.

Though Vermeer gained some fame in his hometown, he was forgotten, after his death, until the mid-19th century. Rediscovering his paintings has been difficult, because they are hard to find and verify as his. Many of his paintings were scattered around the world and sold under the names of other, more famous artists, in order to draw a better price.


Arasse, Daniel. Vermeer- Faith in Painting. (Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press, 1994).

Kleiner, Fred and Richard Tansey. Gardner's Art through the Ages. 10th ed., (Philadelphia; Harcourt and Brace Publishing Co., 1996).

Matthews, Roy T. and F. DeWitt Platt. The Western Humanities. 2nd ed., (Mountain View, CA; Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994).

For Further Information

"Paintings of Vermeer", by the Roy Williams Clickery, at the California Institute of Technology, has thumbnails and enlargements of every known Vermeer painting with a commentary, as well as historical facts about Vermeer's life and times, and links to other Vermeer web sites.

You might also find Vermeer's Delft an interesting site which uses advanced computer imaging to recreate the city of Delft as it looked in Vermeer's day.

Edited by: Hanne C. Pedersen
Researched by: Debra R Hendriksma
Written by: Nathan L. Seldomridge

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